Crushing crime cartels

Yury Fedotov

Yury Fedotov, executive director of UNODC, tells Global what the UN and its partners are doing to counteract human trafficking, piracy and drug smuggling internationally

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is the UN’s task force focusing on illegal drugs and international crime, giving technical assistance to member states and providing research to increase understanding of current drugs and crime issues. The organisation also assists countries in ratifying and implementing relevant international treaties. 

Global: How extensive is human trafficking globally? Are interventions having an impact?

Yury Fedotov: Many thousands of women, children and men are being tricked, coerced and exploited across the globe. UNODC’s ‘Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012’ found victims from 136 different nationalities in 118 countries. The report also identified 460 different trafficking flows for the victims globally. It is estimated that this form of modern slavery earns as much as US$32 billion annually for the criminals. We therefore are confronting a shameful crime on a global scale, where the victims are often an invisible, but ever present, reality in our modern societies. 

Given these challenges, it is also worth recognising that there have been successes. Based on our report, 83 per cent of countries now have proper legislation to combat human trafficking. In 2012, it was only 60 per cent. Within the Middle East and North African region, the number of countries that have anti-human trafficking legislation has doubled. In the criminal justice system, 25 per cent of countries reported an increase in convictions, which is helping to send a strong message about this crime. But change is coming too slowly for the millions of victims. What we need is an inspirational, but also realistic goal. I would suggest we need a decade of concrete action to try to eradicate human trafficking. 

You are closely involved in promoting the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons, as well as the Blue Heart Campaign Against Human Trafficking. What is your specific interest in this crime?

Human trafficking is slavery reinvented. I am appalled by the size and scale of this crime and the horrendous suffering of the victims. It should have no place in any modern society. 

What disturbs me most is the impact that this crime has on its victims, especially children. This year UNODC released a publication titled, Hear Their Story (Help us Change Their Lives), which contains the personal stories of the victims of human trafficking throughout the world. They are stories of sexual and labour exploitation, servitude, cruelty and violence. It is a publication that everyone should read. UNODC’s Blue Heart Campaign was created to tell these stories and in doing so, inspire and mobilise public opinion. The Blue Heart Campaign gives voice to the victims and supports the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons. So far, the trust fund has funded the work of 11 grass-roots non-governmental organisations against human trafficking. But, if the trust fund is to have a long lasting and tangible impact on this crime, it needs to be strongly supported by governments, the private sector and civil society. 

UNODC released a paper in 2009 on ‘Combating Trafficking in Persons in Accordance with the Principles of Islamic Law’. In what ways does an Islamic legal framework differ to other legal frameworks?

While international law is a guiding principle, national legislatures need to design legal provisions that are also tailored to the legal structures and the reality of human trafficking in their own country. Given that the legal traditions and legal systems in many Muslim countries rely primarily on Islamic law, a study of Islamic legal provisions and traditions relating to trafficking in persons was important. 

‘Combating Trafficking in Persons in Accordance with the Principles of Islamic Law’ sought to analyse the Islamic legal tradition from the perspective of those principles and provisions that combat human trafficking. The publication stresses that although Islamic law does not specifically prohibit human trafficking, it does prohibit many of the acts that constitute this crime. 

In recent years, the Arab world has witnessed a significant legislative shift in the area of trafficking in persons. In 2003, Mauritania was the first Arab country to enact anti-trafficking legislation. Today, 14 Arab countries have either a comprehensive anti-trafficking law or a provision in the penal code that criminalises trafficking in persons, in accordance with the Protocol on Trafficking in Persons. The publication has played a role in these successes. 

You spoke at the International Workshop on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings earlier this year. Was there a particular focus to come out of this event?

I think our work is driven by two concepts: the vital need to move from ratification to absolute implementation of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and its protocol on human trafficking, and the importance of co-ordinating our actions against human trafficking across the globe. 

Much more work needs to be done on promoting best practices against human trafficking that are in line with international human rights, while acknowledging that the criminals are often operating across borders. This means undertaking joint operations and signing mutual legal assistance agreements to ensure that the traffickers do not escape justice. But, if I could mention one essential element – and it is the building block for all other successful activities – it is the need for each country to have a national human trafficking strategy founded on prevention of the crime, pursuit of the criminals and protection of the victims. 

What progress has been made on getting countries to adopt proper legislation to combat human trafficking?

Although real progress is being made in signing UNTOC and the human trafficking protocol, and we are heading towards universal application, what is really important is the need for full implementation of the convention. In many countries the laws exist but they are often not being applied. According to UNODC’s ‘Global report on human trafficking 2012’, of the 132 countries covered, between 2007 and 2010, 16 per cent did not record a single conviction for trafficking offences and 23 per cent recorded less than ten convictions. 

Overall, I would suggest there are four essential steps we need to take immediately to beat the traffickers:

  1. Increased victim protection and support
  2. Universal ratification and full implementation of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, as well as its Protocol on Trafficking in Persons
  3. Fresh contributions to the Trust Fund from governments, the private sector and the public to assist grass-roots organisations
  4. The provision of comprehensive data to understand the nature of this destructive global crime. 

Piracy in Somalia remains a major problem. Shouldn’t the focus be on increasing the capacity of Somalia to fight and prosecute pirates, instead of increasing the capabilities of surrounding countries?

It is true that piracy affects regional and international interests, as well as Somalia itself. Excluding indirect costs, it has been estimated that $6 billion was spent in 2012 on responding to Somali piracy, such as increased fuel consumption for higher transit speeds, private security and other measures. However, less than 0.5 per cent of this sum was spent on longer-term solutions. UNODC’s counter-piracy work is very much part of that 0.5 per cent. 

Why then did UNODC focus on regional prosecution centres at the beginning – Kenya, Seychelles and now Mauritius? Well, we needed to facilitate a quick solution because there were Somali pirates who needed to be prosecuted. We also had to estimated that $6 billion was spent in 2012 on responding to Somali piracy, such as increased fuel consumption for higher transit speeds, private security and other measures. However, less than 0.5 per cent of this sum was spent on longer-term solutions. UNODC’s counter-piracy work is very much part of that 0.5 per cent. 

Why then did UNODC focus on regional prosecution centres at the beginning – Kenya, Seychelles and now Mauritius? Well, we needed to facilitate a quick solution because there were Somali pirates who needed to be prosecuted. We also had to focus on an immediate regional solution and Kenya provided this, followed soon after by Seychelles. In addition, we needed a regional response based on the rule of law, and a criminal prosecutions system that functioned on the basis of human rights. Otherwise, those who were actually apprehending the pirates would not have been willing to hand suspects over to regional states for prosecution. 

However, UNODC recognises that the ultimate solution can only be found in Somalia and this is why we have focused initially on prisons – the end point of the criminal justice system, and the part of the system where we could have the biggest impact. I should add that this work also offered the potential to build a Somali partnership based on local ownership. This focus had the vital added attraction of facilitating further regional prosecution capacity elsewhere. 

Does UNODC work with other organisations?

UNODC works closely within the UN system where the One-UN strategy is helping UN entities deliver in the field collectively. Outside the UN system, we have formed strategic relationships with a number of global and regional inter-governmental organisations. In doing so, we are fulfilling one of our own strategic commitments, which is to ensure full co-operation and co-ordination in the delivery of activities that benefit the victims of drugs, crime and terrorism. Examples of our joint activities include work in the area of information sharing and the promotion of joint action against illicit trafficking. To achieve this, we work with the Central Asian Regional Information and Co-ordination Centre in Almaty, the Joint Planning Cell in Tehran, the Gulf Criminal Information Centre in Doha, and the Southeast European Law Enforcement Center in Bucharest. Elsewhere, UNODC comanages its Global Container Control Programme with the World Customs Organisation (WCO). The WCO, Interpol and Europol are also fully engaged with our Paris Pact Initiative, which builds political commitment at the highest levels to disrupt opiate flows from Afghanistan. 

UNODC is facing a growing funding challenge as demand for its services has surged. How do you plan to access funding?

UNODC does not receive assessed contributions from member states, but relies on voluntary contributions for 92 per cent of its funding, with the remainder coming from the regular budget of the UN Secretariat. With our mandate of keeping the world safe from drugs, crime and terrorism figuring heavily on the radar of most states, the demand for UNODC’s services has grown exponentially. 

We deliver approximately US$200 million annually in technical assistance through integrated global, national and regional programmes that span the globe and address our mandate areas. Indeed, UNODC’s unique mix of standard setting, research and technical co-operation mandates have made it a centre of excellence, both in its headquarters and in the field where it truly counts. 

Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and the states of central Asia share a common problem – drug trafficking. Afghanistan is the wellspring of the global opium trade, which is smuggled through Iran, Pakistan and central Asia. Can you tell Global about UNODC’s Triangular Initiative?

The production and cultivation of opiates in Afghanistan undermine stability in the region, fuel insurgency, promote criminality, and help to spread HIV and hepatitis. As a consequence, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan have some of the highest prevalence rates for opiate use in the world. 

In 2007, UNODC brokered a new regional forum to tackle the Afghan opiates. It was called the Triangular Initiative and brought together the counter-narcotics authorities of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. The Triangular Initiative umbrella of co-operation aims to engage the three countries in finding field-oriented solutions to the transnational threat posed by the trafficking of Afghan opiates and the diversion and smuggling of associated precursors. 

Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan have made a number of drug control interventions against the flow of opiates from Afghanistan. We recently expanded the Triangular Initiative to support cooperation in maritime regional security (MaReS) between Iran and Pakistan. In April, approximately 7.3 tonnes of different types of drugs (heroin, opium and hashish) were seized in the waters of Iran and United Arab Emirates. This maritime operation is a direct outcome of the UNODC interventions under this programme. 

Overall, the global drug-use situation has remained stable, but poly drug use, especially the combination of prescription drugs and illicit substances, continues to be a major concern. What are the current trends in terms of global drug use?

Poly drug use is not a new phenomenon and there are many different reasons for it. One reason, for example, is where people are using more than one drug or substance together, or at different times during the day. People who are experimenting may also use substances in combination to have a complimentary or enhanced effect on the substances they are primarily using. Examples of this type of behaviour include alcohol with cannabis, use of benzodiazepines with heroin, or users might use different substances to offset the effect of the primary substance, for example benzodiazepines after the use of stimulants. 

This type of drug use also reflects the coping mechanism of regular or dependent drug users to market dynamics – the use of several substances by an individual over a longer period of time might reflect the replacement of one drug by another, but it may also be due to changes in price, purity or its availability or even the latest prevailing fad in substance usage. For all these reasons, it is difficult to generalise the trend of poly drug use or even to quantify it. Expert reports, however, indicate that poly drug use is common among drug users and remains a concern for health professionals dealing with drug users in different settings.

About the author:

Yury Fedotov is executive director of UNODC


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